“Never explain, never retract, never apologize. Just get the thing done and let them howl.” – Nellie L. McClung
Chinua Achebe appeared on the world stage in grand style by way of the epochal novel Things Apart. He left the stage in the grandest style ever possible through his release of There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra. Some people who mouth controversy should learn the words of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
What strikes me most instructively in There Was a Country is Achebe’s deposition that he could not see any of his so-called friends come to the rescue of the Igbo people when they were being hounded and killed at will across the country before the start of the civil war. The venom with which Achebe’s book has been bitterly attacked in certain quarters has made me to edit the characters I call my friends!
Actually There Was a Country has created the world record of having more critics who had not set eyes on the book, let alone read it. Some of the critics of Achebe’s There Was a Country actually called for the outright banning of not just the book but also Things Fall Apart! It is of course simply beneath me to dignify septal palace intellectuals of man-worship with a response.
So let’s make progress along the lines of Achebe’s wise words…
Achebe does not waste words. His warning in There Was a Country rings true that there may be no Nigeria if his urgent message is not addressed. It is an apocalyptic valediction from a prophet. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer of South Africa understands the great import of There Was a Country as she writes thusly: “Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom.
It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of storytelling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”
Yes, any new book by Achebe becomes an instant classic. Chinua Achebe’s oeuvre is indeed intimidating starting from the legendary Things Fall Apart in 1958 and grandly lapping all the way through No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, Girls at War and Other Stories, Beware Soul Brother, Morning Yet on Creation Day, The Trouble with Nigeria, Chike and the River, Home and Exile, Hopes and Impediments, The Education of a British-Protected Child etc.
There Was a Country can in a sense be seen as the encapsulation of the great man’s lifework.
Achebe starts out by reiterating his favourite Igbo proverb that “tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” For Achebe, the rain began to beat Africa upon the “discovery” of the continent by Europe some 500 years ago.
Achebe follows through history to the Biafran war that changed not just the course of Nigeria but more crucially and cataclysmically the history of Africa. According to Achebe, “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”
Born in Ogidi in present-day Anambra State on November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe who was baptized as Albert was indeed a child prodigy from the very beginning such that his academic feats was known far and wide culminating to his lifelong buddy Christian Chike Momah, alias Papa Ada, confessing that he and his mates were warned early in life that one Albert Achebe from Ogidi would send them to the cleaners in the regional school exams!
It was therefore no wonder that Achebe was early in life given this nickname: Dictionary. He passed his school certificate exams at the top of the class with five distinctions and one credit, and the one credit was paradoxically in literature that would eventually earn him worldwide fame. In the nationwide examination for entry into the University College, Ibadan which had just been established Achebe came first or second in the entire country and thus won a major scholarship. His alma mater Government College, Umuahia was so proud of his achievement that they put up a big sign that stayed on the wall for many years.
At Ibadan he did not feel like studying medicine after all and thus lost his scholarship. Upon graduation from Ibadan he fell in love with Christie Okoli while working at the then Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Enugu. When Achebe eventually transferred his services to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Lagos he began his journey with destiny by writing Things Fall Apart.
He then in a “quite naïve, even foolish” move posted the only handwritten manuscript he had to a typing agency in London after paying the then hefty fee of 32 pounds sterling in 1956. It was through the help of a former BBC Talks producer, Angela Beattie, who had been seconded to NBC Lagos that the typed manuscript was eventually recovered from the typing agency after about two months of nerve-wrecking panic and delay.
Achebe in his humble manner labels his time “A Lucky Generation”. He lived through the march to Independence in 1960 and the exploits of great politicians such as Zik, Ahmadu Bello and Awolowo. “Here is heresy:” Achebe writes. “The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.”
Achebe’s novel A Man of the People which ended with a military coup was published on the cusp of the January 15, 1966 military coup, “something Nigeria has never really recovered from.” Achebe was one of the last Easterners to flee from Lagos after first sending home his then young family of wife Christie, daughter Chinelo and son Ike.
Achebe reiterates his deposition in The Trouble with Nigeria “that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.” He delves into the pogroms against the Igbo, the July 29, 1966 countercoup and the assassination of the Supreme Commander JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi. The failure of the Nigerian team to accede to the Aburi Accord would in the end lead to the Civil War.
There has been the argument that Biafra was not ready for the war, but one should not wait to be properly armed like the bully before fighting back for one’s life. Only a very poor student of history would not know that somebody like Fidel Castro, for example, did not wait to have as many weapons as Fulgencio Batista before confronting the evil regime in Cuba.
Castro was captured and jailed after his first attack in 1953, then he was betrayed and ambushed in 1956 only to fortunately flee from Cuba but he eventually succeeded in ousting Batista in 1959. In South Africa, in circa 1961, the African National Congress (ANC) decided to take up armed struggle to battle the gargantuan arsenal of the Apartheid goons, and here is what Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army. It would be a daunting task for a veteran general much less a military novice.” Mandela and his comrades thus set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation).
According to Mandela, “The symbol of the spear was chosen because with this simple weapon Africans had resisted the incursions of whites for centuries.” Mandela reminds us that the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista had felt that the appropriate conditions had not arrived to wage the war but “Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed. If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur.”
Achebe lived as a refugee in villages such as Ezinifite in Aguata local government. He sends up what he labels “the Triangle Game: the UK, France, and the United States” in the war effort.
Achebe’s Enugu house was amongst the first places to be bombed in the Biafran enclave. The publishing house Citadel Press Achebe set up with his bosom friend, the iconic poet Christopher Okigbo, took possession of the manuscript of Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 15, 1966 coup but Achebe had reservations about the writing which Ifeajuna’s colleague Chukwuma Nzeogwu dismissed as “Emma’s lies”. The killing of Okigbo put paid to the publishing dreams, but the duo had worked assiduously on the manuscript of How the Leopard Got Its Claws by Chinua Achebe and John Iroaganachi containing a poem “Lament of the Deer” by Christopher Okigbo.
Achebe’s role as the head of the team that wrote the Ahiara Declaration marks him out as a conscience of the new nation. He was a roving cultural ambassador in the course of the war. He does not flinch from delving into controversial issues such as the Asaba massacre, the Calabar massacre, the vexed issue of propaganda, the media war, refugees, world champion boxer Dick Tiger as a Biafran, Biafra’s taking of an oil rig in the so-called Kwale incident, the role of international writers, and of course the question of genocide. Once the former Nigerian president Zik switched over to Nigeria the war was as good as over.
In the end the Biafran leader Ojukwu had to flee to Cote d’Ivoire and thus “robbed Gowon of closure and complete satisfaction in victory.” Beyond the book, it is indeed remarkable that Gowon, like Ojukwu, needed a state pardon to make a re-entry into Nigeria.
All hell has since broken loose in the Nigerian media because Achebe quoted Awolowo’s argument that “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war” that eventually led to “eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”
The slanging match is evenly matched between defenders of Awolowo and backers of Achebe alongside the well-worn ethnic Nigerian divide. It suffices to say that the national catharsis is well worth it.
Achebe delivers what we used to label in primary school as “one blow, seven akpus”, to wit, delivering one punch to a person’s face that leaves the hapless fellow with seven bumps on the selfsame face. Achebe has this to say on Igbo reintegration, or lack thereof, after the war:
“The Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.”
Achebe goes beyond the war to when the civilian regime of then President Olusegun Obasanjo took sides with criminals to kidnap the governor and burn down government buildings in his native Anambra State which made him to publicly reject the national honours awarded him.
He tackles the issues of corruption and indiscipline, state failure and the rise of terrorism, state resuscitation and recovery. He sees Nelson Mandela as the shining example for every African and indeed all mankind at large; incidentally Mandela has the highest regard for Achebe as “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.” This well-annotated book that is interspersed with poems has done the great duty of getting Nigerians reading again and actually debating, even as the critics are only interested in uncouth abuses.
Irony is the great power of Achebe. Some may read the book, like the New York Times reviewer, thinking that Achebe meant there was a country called Biafra without understanding that Nigeria is at bottom the purview. Achebe’s marriage of history and memoir in There Was a Country has raised a very high stake in the discourse of Nigeria. It is akin to a new birth for the country that must return to school, not unlike the birth of Achebe’s son Chidi who gave me the book, as limpidly limned in There Was a Country: “On May 24, 1967, in the midst of this chaos, my wife went into labor.
I sent my close friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, to the hospital she had been admitted to find out when the birth would take place, and then to call me at home, where I had briefly returned to rest and take a shower. In characteristic Okigbo fashion, he waited for the delivery, went to the nursery to see the baby, and then drove back to convey the news to me that my wife had delivered our third child, Chidi – ‘There is a God’ – and that the way his baby locks were arranged, he looked like he had had a haircut and was ready to go to school!”
At barely 28 years of age Chinua Achebe published the novel Things Fall Apart in 1958, and it has in its 55 or so years of existence proven to be the single most important piece of literature out of Africa. The 50th anniversary of the 200-odd page novel was celebrated all over the world with festivals, readings, symposia, concerts etc. The novel which has been likened to epic Greek tragedies has been translated to 50 languages and has sold over ten million copies. It is taught not just in literature classes but in history and anthropology departments in colleges and universities across the globe. The archetypal theme of the meeting of the white world and the black race makes Things Fall Apart an epochal event in the annals of world literature.
The book works at several levels, and can be read at any age from 10 to 100. As a child one can enjoy the incidents such as the match with Amalinze the Cat, Unoka’s dismissal of his creditor, Okonkwo’s attempted shooting of one of his wives, the visitation of the masked spirits etc. Later in life the many ironies in the book come into play such as the joke on the District Commissioner thinking that Okonkwo’s story can only end up as a paragraph in his planned book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, without knowing that one Chinua Achebe had taken the thunder from him by giving Okonkwo an entire book in which the story is narrated from inside!
It is not for nothing that Achebe is celebrated as the father of African literature. He has changed the perspective of world literature from the gaudy picture of Africa as painted by Europeans such as Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary and Sir Rider Haggard to the authentic telling of the tale by the Africans. Unlike earlier African writers like Guinea’s Camara Laye, author of The African Child, who painted a romantic picture of the continent, Achebe is relentlessly objective in his narration, telling it as it is, warts and all.
It is because of the remarkable success of Things Fall Apart that the publishers Heinemann UK launched the African Writers Series (AWS) in 1962 with Achebe’s first novel as the first title.
For many years Achebe served as a non-remunerated Editorial Adviser of the series in which the majority of African writers got their breakthrough in publishing. Things Fall Apart reputedly accounted for 80 percent of the entire revenue of the AWS.
Former American President Jimmy Carter numbers Achebe as one of his favourite writers. The rave reviews for Achebe’s most famous novel have somewhat dwarfed his other novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe won the Man Booker Prize for his lifetime achievement in fiction writing, beating a formidable shortlist that included Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Ian McEwan etc. He equally won, as the first African, the American National Arts Club Medal of Honour for Literature in November 2007.
Things Fall Apart has earned its uncommon distinction as a modern classic and was in 1992 adopted into the esteemed Everyman’s Library of world classics. The Igbo world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which Achebe limned in Things Fall Apart has become the global picture of Africa writ large. At the turn of the 20th century the book was voted as Africa’s “novel of the century”. Achebe has in the book given the world a new English language which paradoxically portrays African life without facetiousness or affectation. He lays bare the brute masculinity of the age without bending the knee to latter-day political correctness or gender balance. The truth happens to be Achebe’s sublime weapon in telling the immortal African story.
It is remarkable that Achebe worked beyond the African past by depicting the corruption that is ravaging Nigeria and indeed all Africa in his second novel No Longer At Ease. He delves into where angels fear to tread, tackling the ignoble Osu Caste system. His landmark Arrow of God can be likened to the tensions bedeviling the six geo-political zones of Nigeria in the manner the six villages of Umuaro met with tragedy. The shame of Nigerian partisan politics has its best illustration in literature in Achebe’s A Man of the People which predicted the advent of coups and counter-coups. Achebe extends his grand discourse of life in his assessment of the segments of struggle in his last novel Anthills of the Savannah.
The issue is always raised that Achebe never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, the following writers who were still writing after the Nobel had been bequeathed did not win the prize: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Ibsen, Conrad, Twain, Brecht etc. Then these are the names of the so-called writers who won the Nobel Prize: Carducci, Eucken, Heidenstam, Reymont, Karlfeldt, Laxness etc. In short, the Nobel Prize does not the great writer make.
Chinua Achebe belongs with the gods. He is indeed immortal.
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